On May 27, nine FIFA representatives – along with a handful of sports media executives – were arrested on corruption charges in Geneva, Switzerland. The United States-led case against soccer’s most powerful nonprofit institution is less surprising in the content of its allegations (bribery, racketeering, and fraud) than the extent of the indictments.
News reports appeared last year showing that FIFA officials may have received bribes from vested interests in Qatar for lobbying on the Middle Eastern country’s behalf in the campaign for the World Cup. Indeed, the last year has seen a host of stories concerning the less salubrious aspects of FIFA’s operations, including the nonprofit’s undue pressure on governments to change local laws in order accommodate sponsors’ interests. While these and other controversies were hardly secret, the multi-billion dollar institution exuded an air of invincibility, weathering criticism through its immense influence as the international administrator of the world’s most popular sport.
Sports are big business, and nonprofit sports institutions are not immune to the corrosive influence of billions of dollars in profits. Whether it is the exploitive profiteering of the NCAA or the evasiveness and obscurity of the NFL’s (now bygone) tax exemption status, United States sports fans have seen the unsavory – if not entirely illegal – side of sports nonprofits. Taken to the world stage, the picture gets even shadier. The larger scope often means that the corruption is more sinister, involving governments and business interests that are not held to the same human rights checks that U.S. sports fans naturally expect domestic institutions to adhere to.
Enter Qatar: the highly controversial recipient of the 2022 World Cup. One of the chief issues at play in last month’s indictments against FIFA representatives is the bribery of officials by Qatari interests – backroom arrangements involving illicit cash transfers that may have ultimately secured the rights to the World Cup for the Gulf state.
Outside of the excruciatingly high and perhaps disqualifying temperatures in Qatar (desert conditions can reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit), critics also say that the nation’s abusive labor practices should bar it from hosting the Cup. The massive development projects currently underway to build stadiums for the tournament depend on inhumanely treated and miserably compensated migrant workers from Southeastern Asia, including Nepalese, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and Indian workers. According to reports, as many as 1,200 workers have died since construction projects began in 2010. To put this in perspective, the closest contemporary fatality rate for a massive world sports competition development project was the Sochi Olympics, which saw the deaths of 60 workers. The Guardian projects that migrant worker deaths in Qatar could reach as high as 4,000 by the completion of the project.
Qatar’s ruthless labor practices don’t stop there. Reports indicate that workers are compelled to work in scorching weather with little to no access to water. Often hired through third-party brokers, workers have their passports confiscated by employers upon arrival and face hefty contractor fees that largely negate their salaries. Recently, Nepalese workers were denied the right to return home to attend funerals for family members that perished in Nepal’s catastrophic earthquake.
Taken together, all of these components paint a picture of virtual slavery, tacitly endorsed by a mum FIFA.
Additionally, FIFA’s damaging effects on developing countries emerged as a big issue during the Brazil Cup. An ordinance that barred alcohol sales during soccer matches – legislation that, after it was passed, drastically decreased violence during sporting events in Brazil – was rescinded in order to placate Budweiser, one of FIFA’s biggest sponsors. FIFA shrugged off criticism concerning its stance on local autonomy, flippantly suggested that Brazilian authorities simply had no say as to whether or not its own laws were enforced.
The supposed economic benefits of hosting the game was also proven erroneous. Brazil constructed the second most expensive stadium ever built, and it is now used primarily as a parking lot for public buses. The nation saw widespread demonstrations and unrest due to the perceived waste of government spending for a temporary event that catered primarily to foreign tourists and fans to the detriment of Brazilian citizens.
In the world of global sports, FIFA ranks among the most profitable organizations. This is due largely to the fact that soccer is by-and-large the world’s most popular sport. Between 2011 and 2014, FIFA earned around $5.7 billion, $1.6 billion of which came from corporate sponsorships alone. With labor abuses and internal corruption, FIFA’s unethical practices and sizable profit margin distract from the lofty principles of peaceful and honorable competition.
Whether or not the United States-led indictments lead to an overhaul of FIFA’s operations remains to be seen. Sepp Blatter – the long-time, controversial president of FIFA – was recently reelected to his position despite the scandal. Infamous for his suggestion that women’s soccer would be more popular if the athletes wore tighter uniforms, Blatter is criticized as out-of-touch and emblematic of the entrenched elite that control the mechanisms behind the institution.
The definition of what constitutes a nonprofit varies around the world, but at the core of the definition is the idea that an organization empowers people or otherwise contributes positively to human experience by promoting constructive causes. Sports are certainly an empowering cause, helping further everything from gender equality to health, economic opportunity to cultural understanding. FIFA’s stated mission is dedicated to “the constant improvement of football.” Whether or not it actually pursues this goal according to the values expected of an international nonprofit institution is contingent on rooting out structural abuses and aggressively advocating international standards of human rights for the benefit of all people from around the globe.